Tour operator facing federal charges

A college sports tour operator who took more than a half million dollars from several teams before canceling their overseas trips and claiming bankruptcy is facing federal criminal fraud charges as the result of an FBI investigation prompted by an "Outside the Lines" piece that aired in 2009.

The FBI arrested Dale Brannan, 65, the former owner of Transports Athletics, on Wednesday at his home in Fayetteville, Ga. A federal grand jury indicted Brannan on eight felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, bankruptcy fraud and one count of making a false declaration in a bankruptcy filing.

The conspiracy count, and the five mail fraud counts each carry a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The bankruptcy fraud count and the false declaration count each carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said Brannan was charged with "taking advantage of colleges, universities, parents and even the fans of college student-athletes .. allegedly cheating them out of their money and out of the opportunity to compete abroad."

In March 2009, "Outside the Lines" aired a piece about Brannan and his failed travel business that left dozens of athletes, coaches, parents and booster out a total of $544,000 after they had paid him for international trips he canceled, claiming the company was bankrupt. Investigators were able to support charges relating to about $400,000 of that lost money.

The indictment released Wednesday confirmed what some of Brannan's former customers had suspected. It describes a Ponzi scheme in which Brannan was using money from new customers to pay for the trips previously contracted by other teams and for his own personal expenses. He sent emails to travelers listing bogus airline and hotel reservations.

Robert and Cindy Suiter were supposed to go a trip to China with their daughter Allie, who played volleyball at the University of New Mexico. The team, parents and boosters had paid Brannan more than $150,000. He canceled their trip on May 22, 2008, four days before they -- and the Kansas State University volleyball team -- were scheduled to depart.

"I guess if I could look him in the face, I would want to tell him even after all of this time the hurt is still there," said Cindy Suiter when she heard about his arrest. "The opportunities that he took away from us can never ever be replicated. We'll never be able to see our daughter play in China and have our whole family go there."

Allie Suiter, who graduated in December but remains close to the team by announcing their games online, said she was pleased to hear the news, especially after so many years.

"I'm happy that all of the horrible things that he's done in the past are finally catching up with him," she said.

Brannan was detained after his initial court appearance Wednesday. Calls to Brannan's public defender and his wife Judith Brannan were not returned.

Brian D. Lamkin, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Atlanta Field Office, said the case was significant to the FBI, "not merely because of the loss amounts but also because of the many victims left in the wake of this scheme who had trusted the defendant with handling their collegiate travels abroad."

According to the indictment, FBI investigators also discovered that in April and May 2008, Transports transferred more than $87,000 to two different companies -- one transfer of $21,000 went to MA Laboratories for the purchase of electronics equipment later shipped to Brazil, and another transfer for $66,300 went to a company called Latin Vacation Club, run by Joseph Walker. Walker said he doesn't know anything about the first payment, but he said the second was for a trip to Brazil that Brannan planned to arrange with Walker's company.

Walker's current company, Sports Tours and Tournament Specialists, or STATS, is named in the indictment because Brannan incorporated STATS on May 9, 2008 -- shortly before he canceled the Transports trips. STATS began accepting payments for trips on July 9, 2008, including a trip to Puerto Rico that Eastern New Mexico University had already started with Transports.

Walker said he had Brannan take care of the paperwork for STATS while he was out of the country, but said later that was a mistake. He said he and Brannan parted ways in March 2009, after the "Outside the Lines" episode aired, but that he had misgivings about Brannan for several months. He said Brannan started "freaking out" when Walker suggested they hire a bookkeeper.

"The guy was the expert at convincing anyone of anything, and anyone I've ever spoken to that knew him is owed money," he said, adding that Brannan owns him "thousands" and also owes money to people in Australia and Italy. "He took me for a lot of money. I don't even want to divulge it because it's embarrassing."

Walker said he hasn't been in contact with Brannan since 2009, and didn't know if he was working in the travel industry. Brannan told a judge Wednesday that he was unemployed and retired.

When Brannan spoke briefly with "Outside the Lines" in 2009, he said the company had some "financial situations."

"There was certainly no intent to do anything wrong. None, zero."

But Fred Rose, a New Mexico volleyball booster who lost $3,200, said he believes Brannan always knew what he was doing.

"You can't fool the public all the time ... Basically he's running a Ponzi scheme and finally got caught," he said. "Now hopefully justice will be done and he'll have to serve time. I don't feel sorry for him one bit."

Transports Athletics filed bankruptcy on July 23, 2008, claiming $650,000 in debt. But the filing didn't list debts to two other universities, Minnesota State University and Penn State Erie, which led to another federal charge.

Brannan and his wife had filed personal bankruptcy twice before. The first was in Washington State in 1994 when they were $60,000 in debt. When they filed again in November 2007, they owed almost $1 million, including four mortgages on their house in a secluded island community in Savannah totaling $800,000. They were also making $670 monthly payments to lease an Infinity G35.

Former employees, business partners and clients all described the Brannans as living a lavish lifestyle, and they were unaware of the couple's trail of bad debts and defaults. It's a system that didn't give Cindy Suiter much faith that Brannan would be held accountable for what he's done.

"I never felt like it would actually come to be," she said. "I'm very grateful the system worked."

Richard Pickering, associate athletic director for business and finance at New Mexico, said he thought the case had been dropped. He said he's still angry about the $82,000 the university lost to Brannan.

"I think it really speaks volumes for the young women on our volleyball team who did not get the opportunity to go to China prior to the Olympics. The heartbreak. And also for the parents who lost money for that particular trip," he said. "It would be a small measure of justice."

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at paula.lavigne@espn.com.